Jailed colleagues preoccupy Turkey's journalists

TUESDAY 2 MAY, ISTANBUL I sat in on an executive meeting of Türkiye Gazeteciler Sendikasi (TGS), the journalists' union of Turkey. Twenty-five elected representatives from newsrooms all over their country came together in a sweaty Istanbul hotel. Top of their agenda was detailed consideration of their demand for the release of colleagues from Turkey's prisons.

Journalists protesting with banner

Protesting in Istanbul with TGS members for an end to the jailing of journalists: #GazetecilikSuçDeğildir points us toward the "Journalism is not a crime" website

At the end of 2016, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that worldwide 259 journalists were in jail as a result of their work. Few doubt that the greatest number of these are in Turkey, but the question that gripped the TGS representatives, was just how many are behind bars for their work? With UNESCO World Press Freedom Day the following day, the executive of the 65-year-old union wanted to be sure of the figure for their campaign.

It was a heartbreaking and humbling debate to witness. Many contributions had the passion and eloquence you might expect at a trades union executive meeting. But there was also visible pain as local union presidents spoke of colleagues in jail. "One can find spots on the milk but not on our Hakan" said a branch leader of his jailed friend, using a Turkish phrase to stress the case of Hakan Karasinir from Cumhuriyet newspaper. "He is totally clean and innocent and deprived from his freedom".

Some wondered whether more partisan reporters or those who previously supported the jailing of colleagues should be excluded from their list? Public support might be less forthcoming for those with close links to opposition political parties or religious groups. There was also a debate about whether the jailed accountant of one newspaper should be included. He is not a journalist but he was incarcerated for his vital role in his newspaper's operation.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

That debate concluded that of course he should be included - but they must make clear that their list is of jailed media workers as well, not just journalists.

One representative reported on his own experience of summary 48-hour detention and an ensuing two-year travel ban. It was only lifted because of a campaign by TGS within Turkey and support from the European and International Federation of Journalists (EFJ-IFJ). Colleagues arrested on the same night, but lacking union support, were still confined to their home city or in jail.

In the end, their decision was a journalistic one. TGS - which has over 1000 members and employs just two administrative staff - wanted a list of which they could all be absolutely sure. Someone else's research would not do. They voted to devote scarce funds to employ a lawyer part-time to scrutinise the paperwork relating to each case. Better to have robust facts, even if they would not be ready for World Press Freedom Day. "This is not a race to be the first to publish the highest figure and all different figures published by many organisations are actually pointing to the same unacceptable problem of jailing journalists", said a board member. Few expected the tally to be far short of 150 - more than half of all the world's jailed journalists.

I have sat through hundreds of union executive meetings, and participated in decisions that would have profoundly affected union members' lives, but never have the decisions seemed so raw or painful. And it was by no means the only sign of the perilous position in which Turkey's civil society finds itself.

I arrived to find the centre of Istanbul swamped with thousands of armed police, including detachments of tear-gas-ready riot police and tank-like water canons. Their role was to prevent the traditional 1 May march getting anywhere near Taksim Square in the city centre. Trades unionists and left-wingers were been allowed to process along a road called Bakirköy nearly ten miles from the city centre. Despite this a reported 40,000 took to the streets - nearly ten times more than a year before. There were similar marches in more than 51 of Turkey's 81 administrative departments - a considerable achievement taking into account the State of Emergency.

President Erdogan has just extended this state of emergency, that allows him to rule by decree. He has also acquired sweeping new powers in a controversial referendum which international observers described as "not being held on a level playing field".

And the day before I set off for Turkey, the government blocked access to Wikipedia and sacked 4000 more civil servants. Its inaccessibility from my hotel room provided a very real reminder of both how weird this seems and how dependent British journalism is now on the online encyclopaedia.

Clearly Erdogan enjoys considerable support - of about half its citizens. The remaining half is strongly and vocally opposed to his policies. But I also spoke with many Turks who are scared. Some talk about leaving the country in fear. Others anticipate further arbitrary crackdowns.

Responding to such situations from outside is never easy. The best response, so far as I can see, is this. Build links with Turkey, its people, trade unions and civic organisations. Once the riot police were back in barracks, Istanbul returned to its joyful, exuberant, easy-going best. Same-sex couples mingled with the scores of Arab men who come here for inexpensive hair transplants. The streets buzz and country's economic vitality pulsates from restaurants, bars and the bazaar.

Come to the country. Bear witness to the trials. Establish links with those Turks, Kurds, minorities and refugees who are working desperately hard to save its civic institutions. Let cheap travel and the internet deliver more than beach holidays and cute cat pictures. Do that and we will not only strengthen the hand of Turkey's democratic forces, but we will also enjoy a share of what makes the country so vital and exciting.